One day earlier this year, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions passed through the cafeteria in a Senate office building to buy lunch. The Alabama Republican was slated to become the attorney general under President Donald Trump and help lead an immigration crackdown. Having railed for years against undocumented immigrants, Sessions signaled a new hard-line approach to deportations in the Trump era.
The Senate cashier who rang up Sessions that day was a 26-year-old mother of three from El Salvador, Ana Gomez Ramirez. She is a so-called Dreamer: a young immigrant who came to the country as an undocumented child. She recognized Sessions and knew how he felt about people like her who had entered the country illegally. The soft-spoken Gomez Ramirez greeted him with a hello. Sessions politely asked her how she was doing.
“He was nice,” Gomez Ramirez recalled after a recent shift. “Even though he doesn’t want us here.”
Like hundreds of thousands of other Dreamers, Gomez Ramirez received a temporary work permit and a reprieve from deportation under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. As a DACA recipient, she has felt the whiplash of the government’s shifting policy toward immigrants ― all while serving and cleaning up after the very politicians who will determine her family’s future here.
Her route to the Senate basement began in 2005. Her mother was living in Washington at the time, and she used the family savings to arrange to bring her to the U.S. Gomez Ramirez was just 14 and living alone in El Salvador, where there was a lack of jobs and a lot of violence. She crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and reunited with her mother and older sister in Washington.
The details of her 25-day journey are still fresh in her mind 12 years later. Traveling through the Guatemalan countryside. The 24 hours she spent cramped in the luggage hold at the bottom of a moving bus. The nights sleeping on the cold ground in the desert, wrapped in a sweater an old woman gave her. The demands by “coyotes” that her family send more money. And, finally, her passage across the border and into Texas.
Gomez Ramirez started working as soon as she arrived in Washington, first at a McDonald’s and then, after she quit high school to earn more money, at a food supplier making Indian food, where she logged 13-hour days. She worked as a restaurant server, a dishwasher and as the lone woman on a car wash crew, scrubbing and detailing cars eight hours a day in the hot sun. She always sent a portion of every paycheck back to her grandmother in El Salvador.
She went on to have three girls with her husband, Franklin, a fellow Salvadoran she met at church in the U.S. She never left Washington, not even when her father was murdered in El Salvador in 2009 or when her grandmother died in 2010, knowing that if she went to the funerals she might never return to the U.S. She worked to improve her English and re-enrolled in school. She studied while riding the Metro to and from the car wash. She attained her GED.
In 2012, Obama announced the DACA program. Under the rules, undocumented immigrants who came to the country as minors could apply for deferred action from deportation and, if approved, get a work permit. Some 750,000 Dreamers ― named for the Dream Act, a failed bill that would have created a permanent program through Congress ― have received permission to stay in the U.S. through DACA.
Gomez Ramirez was afraid to apply at first: “I didn’t know if they would grant it or deport me. The last word is theirs.” But with her family’s encouragement and the help of a legal aid group, she rounded up all the documentation showing how long she’d been in the U.S. and submitted it to the government. She kept calling U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to follow up, wondering why friends had been approved before her.
She cried when she was finally granted DACA status roughly a year after she applied. Her aunt threw a party. The next day, she went out to look for a new job. “I wasn’t afraid,” she said. “I had the card.”
She applied to work at the Senate office building, no longer worried about her immigration status, and took jobs working at the buffet and inside the coffeeshop. Her husband suffers from a kidney disease and is no longer able to work, so Gomez Ramirez has become the sole breadwinner for the family, stretching her salary to cover rent and groceries for a family of five.
Last year, Gomez Ramirez showed how all workers can benefit when undocumented people are allowed to come out of the shadows. She and other concessions workers in Congress learned that the federal contractor that employs them had misclassified them, which resulted in hourly pay below the legally required prevailing wage. Dozens of low-wage workers were being shorted, right under the noses of members of Congress. With the help of a union-backed labor group called Good Jobs Nation, they took their case to the Labor Department and won backpay.
Gomez Ramirez’s DACA status made her less fearful to speak up about pay and working conditions. She recently spoke at a rally outside the Capitol, calling for higher wages for federal contract workers. Because of the campaign she joined, she said she now earns $1.80 more per hour than she did before, and many other workers have received raises, too.
But her newfound confidence buckled on Nov. 8. She and Franklin stayed up all night as the ballots were counted, and she wept once the election was called for Trump. The Republican candidate had called DACA “unconstitutional” and vowed to end it. Obama started the program with an executive action; Trump could just as easily unwind it, which would allow Gomez Ramirez’s work permit to expire.
It isn’t at all clear what the new administration will ultimately do. Trump says he wants to focus on deporting people with criminal records rather than those who are working hard and supporting families. He also said he wants to handle DACA recipients with “heart,” calling the program a “very, very difficult subject for me.” He has continued the DACA program so far, despite calls from hard-liners to end it.
While Trump has expressed compassion for Dreamers, the administration has continued its tough talk on immigrants who came here illegally, and it has promised to give immigration agents new leeway to do as they want.
Sessions himself has given Dreamers reason to feel uneasy. “DACA enrollees are not being targeted ... [But] everybody in the country illegally is subject to being deported,” Sessions said last month on Fox News. “So people come here and they stay here a few years, and somehow they think that they’re not subject to being deported. Well, they are.”
Even though Gomez Ramirez got a two-year renewal of her DACA status last year, Trump’s rise to power has changed the way she goes about her day. Last summer her family made the 14-hour drive to Orlando, Florida, to fulfill a promise to take their daughters to Disney World. Now, given the immigration climate, they would no longer risk such a long drive through unknown areas.
“I don’t really go out a lot now,” she said. “I try to just come to work, do my thing and stay at home. I’m afraid again.”
She feels no more secure for her husband. He has what’s known as temporary protected status from deportation, or TPS. The program allows immigrants to stay in the U.S. because of violence or disaster in their home countries. El Salvador was initially designated TPS because of earthquakes in 2001.
The program exists at the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security, and if the Trump administration doesn’t renew it in early 2018, Franklin and 200,000 other Salvadorans could lose their protected status. On top of the immigration worries, he needs a kidney transplant. His family is trying to raise money for the operation.
His health costs make Gomez Ramirez’s paycheck all the more important. She tries to keep her mind focused on her work rather than on the policies senators are drafting upstairs. She was reminded of this the day Sessions passed through her lane. As she told one of her colleagues afterward, they weren’t there to think about the lawmakers who come down the line or where they stand on immigration. They were there to serve them.
“That is all that we do: We work,” Gomez Ramirez said. “We don’t come here to do anything else.”